The global food system had undergone dramatic changes in recent years. Rapid urbanisation, sedentary lifestyles and higher incomes have resulted in a shift towards less healthy dietary habits.
Consumers today are also placing greater value on convenience and are less likely to prepare meals with fresh ingredients at home — as a result, they rely largely on pre-packaged foods, ordering out or eating out.
All these combined factors have had an impact on consumers' nutrition and health.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, rapid urbanisation in developing countries is something that will shape food security and nutrition in decades to come.
Asia, in particular, is in a vulnerable position.
Some 64 per cent of the region's population is projected to be living in urban areas by 2050.
Besides being home to more than half of the world's undernourished people, Asia is also seeing an increase in the prevalence of overweight and obese people.
Consequently, there are unforeseen threats to public health as some governments struggle to manage the double burden of malnutrition.
Given the evidence that poor dietary habits are among the factors tied to health problems, the food and beverage (F&B) industry has responded to play its role in advancing the region's health agenda.
Innovation through reformulation
To address the myriad of health and nutrition-related concerns, innovation is key in sustaining the industry’s efforts; and for a growing number of F&B companies today, innovation comes in the form of product reformulation and fortification.
As highlighted in a series of reformulation studies conducted by IGD and supported by Food Industry Asia, most F&B companies across India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have begun reformulating their products.
In fact, IGD has identified that 80 per cent of companies across these markets have completed reformulation efforts.
In the past, reformulation meant replacing key ingredients but now, technological advancements have allowed companies to make various simultaneous changes to a product’s composition of ingredients.
Furthermore, consumers are becoming increasingly health conscious actively trying to improve their consumption habits.
There is thus an untapped potential to reformulate that companies not only improve the overall nutritional quality of foods, but also meet the growing demand for such products.
Achieving the best of both worlds
The Asia Reformulation Landscape Report found that a key challenge for the food industry is the ability to create healthier foods while still retaining the original flavour consumers are accustomed to.
Consumers across all studied markets remain unwilling to compromise on taste for health benefits.
Hence, companies carrying out reformulation activities need to focus on improving the nutritional profile of their products whilst maintaining the taste and flavour profiles, if they are to ensure consumer acceptability.
Sugar, for instance, is one of the biggest dietary concerns for consumers. They often look out for information related to sugar content when checking a product’s nutrition label.
Beyond influencing taste, sugar plays a key role in providing texture and preservation.
This has spurred demand for substitutes that impart sweetness with significantly fewer or no calories, which has in turn pushed the F&B industry to develop a wider range of reduced, low or no-added sugar product variants.
The result of such reformulation efforts is the introduction of low/non-calorie sweeteners such as stevia and sucralose, which can support the reduction of calories and sugar in one’s diet without affecting the product’s taste profile.
As it becomes increasingly common in mainstream products and more accessible to consumers, they are less likely to see cost as a barrier to healthy eating.
Encouraging public-private collaboration
In order to accelerate existing reformulation efforts, there is a need for closer collaboration between the government and F&B manufacturers.
The industry cited the lack of fiscal incentives and insufficient technical knowledge as some of the top challenges when they embarked on their reformulation journey.
Hence, assistance from the public sector will be key in bringing about substantial improvements to the region’s food environment.
Additionally, with consumer acceptability being another key challenge, governments also play a crucial role in assuring consumers on the safety and quality of reformulated products and are well-positioned to provide companies with the needed guidance and expertise to support research and development activities.
A positive example is the Malaysian Health Ministry’s “National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia III, 2016-2025”, which proposed that businesses can receive tax benefits if research and development efforts geared toward the development of healthier products is done locally.
While the plan has yet to be implemented, such incentives will go a long way in encouraging new product development and reformulation.
Closer to home in Singapore, we have the Healthier Ingredients Development Scheme initiated by the Health Promotion Board.
This scheme encourages the use of healthier ingredients by the food service industry by providing support in areas such as product development and companies’ go-to-market strategy.
Food reformulation and fortification is not the silver bullet for tackling all issues related to the burden of malnutrition, but they provide a unique opportunity to tweak recipes to make products healthier and more nutritious independent of nudging consumer behaviours.
What’s clear, however, is that a multi-sectoral approach, supported by innovation from the food industry, has indeed had an impact in combating nutrition challenges today with clear opportunities existing for more to be done.
This article was originally published in the New Straits Times.